Religious freedom, including the right to practice what youpreach, became part of our civil liberties in the United States with the adoption of the Bill of Rights 200 years ago.
Courts and legislatures have found more consensus, however, in interpreting the clause of the First Amendment that prohibits ''an establishment of religion'' than in reaching accord on what constitutes ''the free exercise thereof.''
Establishment cases continue to arise, particularly in the area of religious displays on public grounds and the meeting of student denominational groups on school campuses. Yet courts today seem to be more accommodating of religion than their counterparts of the 1950s and 1960s, which generally held to a strict separation of church and state.
The area of religious practice, however, is still largely unresolved. In principle, religious beliefs are absolute and cannot be limited by the state.
But religious practice has been subject to government regulation if it is considered detrimental to the public good. Typically, snake-charming, drug use, and the taking of poison for spiritually related purposes have fallen into this category.
In a different realm, however, is the question of healing through prayer. And in recent years state legislatures have written into child abuse and endangerment statutes exemption from criminal prosecution for parents who rely on prayer rather than medicine in the care of a seriously ill child if a death occurs.
Highly publicized cases today include those of Christian Scientists in California and Massachusetts, in particular, who have turned to prayer for healing a child, and Faith Tabernacle and Faith Assembly families in Pennsylvania who have resisted measles inoculations, utilizing prayer instead as a protection to their children.
These situations have stirred public thought and triggered medical reaction. New attempts are under way to remove from statutes legal accommodations that give parents who rely on spiritual healing the same protections as those who rely on medicine.
In Pennsylvania, after civil-liberties groups had bent their stance on individual rights so as not to oppose compulsory inoculations for children during a measles epidemic, the American Civil Liberties Union drew the line at a judicial mandate which would have required periodic medical examinations of all children and a public listing of all religious groups that believe in faith healing. A family-court judge revoked this order after widespread criticism of excessive state intrusion on individual rights.
The issue of medical treatment versus spiritual care for children is being debated in forums on religion and public policy, academic settings, and pediatric meetings, as well as in legislative halls.
A recent convocation at St. John's University School of Law concluded: ''The only trend that may be gleaned from case law is one of inconsistency and conflict. . . . One point is well settled: This is an extremely divisive issue which tugs at the very roots of ZTC the Constitution. It pits the state against the individual in a contest for what some see as basic, constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.''
During this bicentennial year of the Bill of Rights, Warren E. Burger, former chief justice of the U.S. and now national bicentennial chairman, is calling for greater understanding of religion and a broader tolerance of diverse beliefs.
This would be an appropriate time to rethink, and perhaps reform government policy toward religion in general but prayer in particular. Though prayer is paid homage in public observances, during holidays, and times of special national need (the call of the president for nationwide prayers during the Middle East crisis, for example), it tends to be trivialized in some secular quarters.
These points might provide a framework for discussion:
* Expanding the concept of individual freedom to more fully accommodate the practice of religion and reliance on prayer.
Many churches and religious groups are concerned with what appears to be increased state scrutiny and a moving away from a landmark church-state free-exercise legal concept that puts a prime burden on government to prove why religious practice should be set aside to accommodate public interest. Recent court decisions limiting practices of American Indians are among cases in point.
* Bringing into the mainstream of public policy the religious concept of radical reliance on prayer as a viable and reliable alternative to medicine. There has been a glaring focus recently on the relatively few people, notably children, who died when prayer rather than medicine was used to treat them. Conversely, there has been little attention to the many people who have been healed as a result of prayer and little note of those who have died under medical care.